I was walking through Walgreens when I first heard the voice coming from the next aisle, and I didn't like it. It was hoarse and demanding, and every sentence seemed like it was meant as a punishment or an insult to whoever had to listen. But when I turned the corner I was surprised to see that the voice belonged to a little boy. He couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old, but there was something in his manner that made him seem much older, like a tiny, brutish adult. Maybe it was the trenchcoat he was wearing, a couple of sizes too large and almost dragging on the floor. Or maybe it was the way he was bossing his father around.
"Come here," he was yelling, "and buy me this."
His father had brown, thinning hair and a sorrowful face. He seemed exhausted, following the kid around with dull, shuffling steps.
"What is that, son," he asked softly, "what are you doing with that?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?" the kid responded in a harsh tone.
He was holding two different boxes of crayons in his hands. "I'm checking these out. I'm making a decision and I don't want to be rushed. Here, take this."
He threw one box back on the shelf, flipping the other at his father. It hit the man in the chest and dropped with a crack to the floor.
"Hang onto those," said the kid, "I need more. I want this." He had picked up a thick sketchbook and was crazily turning through it. "This too," he said, flinging the book in his father's direction.
"Nate," said the old man, "what are you going to do with this?"
"What do you think I'm going to do with it, I'm going to draw pictures."
"Pictures of what?"
"I'll draw pictures of anything I feel like. I'll draw pictures of the car you smashed. I'll draw pictures of a bird that can't go nowhere. Don't worry about it."
"I don't know how much money I have with me."
"You have lots of money, you just don't want to spend any of it on me."
"That's not true."
"If it isn't, then buy me some paints."
The boy was beginning to attract attention. An elderly woman with bleached blond hair and a square face was watching critically from a short distance.
"It looks like you have a mad artist here," she commented to the father, who smiled weakly.
"You better watch it," the kid broke in menacingly, "or I'll draw a picture of you."
He opened his eyes wide, studying her for a few seconds, then blinked and leaned back. Holding an imaginary notebook in one hand he began sketching jagged violent lines in the air in front of him. He cocked his head to one side, holding up his small thumb and sticking his tongue out. He daintily erased a few invisible lines, then furiously added dozens more. It looked like he was drawing barbed wire in front of himself.
"Finished!" he exclaimed. He whipped the imaginary portrait through the air, pretending to display it to the startled woman. "This is you. Pretty awful, huh?"
The effect was immediate. The woman didn't react. She didn't gasp or stare or become angry; she simply disappeared, as if the kid had banished her with voodoo.
"Nate!" His father was trying to silence him, but nothing of any force came out. A clerk who had been watching with an amused expression walked past. "If you need a collar for your dog, sir, we have them in the next aisle." The guy said it fast, out of the side of his mouth, glaring at Nate as he moved on.
"What? What did he say?" The kid spun toward his father, who seemed to be shrinking into nothingness. Not getting an answer, he followed the clerk down the aisle until they were both out of sight. Somewhere at the front of the store I could hear him yelling, "What did you say about me? What did you say about me?" Then the words stopped, and he wasn't yelling anymore, he was barking.